Backstrap weaving is a traditional art form practiced in the highlands of Guatemala and in countries around the world, including Peru, China, Japan, Bolivia and Mexico. Historically in ancient Maya culture, weaving colorful cotton textiles was an artform practiced by high ranking women. Weaving has been an integral part of Maya cultural, it was even incorporated into religious ceremonies. The backstrap loom is still used today in Guatemala by indigenous women on a daily basis to create textiles used for everything from clothing to tablecloths. The main pieces of clothing women create and wear are a huipil, or blouse, and a skirt held in place by a belt. These textiles can take anywhere from a week to months to create depending on the complexity of the the design. For indigenous women, backstrap weaving is a convenient way to earn extra income as the equipment needed is light and extremely portable and the loom can be set up almost anywhere.
The Backstrap Loom
The backstrap loom is a simple device that is typically handmade by the weaver. The loom is made of horizontal parallel sticks holding vertical base threads in place. The top end of the loom is tied to a tree or post, while the back end has a strap that encircles the weavers waste or backside (giving it the name ‘backstrap weaving’). The weaver usually kneels on the ground, moving their bodies back to create the tension on the base threads in order to run horizontal threads by passing a shuttle through the layers of vertical base threads. Guatemalan weavers can make textiles thin enough to be a belt up to approximately 24-28inches in width depending on their waist size. When weavers want to create larger textiles, they must use decorative stitching to combine multiple bolts of cloth.
There are two types of backstrap weaving generally practiced in the highlands of Guatemala, simple and brocade. In simple backstrap weaving, either one or a variety of colors are woven together on the loom. For brocade, artisans create elaborate embroidery-like designs by tying additional colorful threads into the weaving.
Traditionally, artisans use cotton yarn dyed naturally using various plant materials. Today, some artisans still use this traditional method however many buy yarn that has already been chemically dyed. Here are some of the natural dyes used in Guatemala:
sacatinta - a blue color
coconut shell – brown
carrots – orange
achiote - soft orange/peach
hibiscus flower - rosy pink
chilca - soft yellow
bark of the avocado tree – beige
quilete - celery green
guayabe - brown / gold
sacatinta & coconut shell – gray
For a more in depth look at the ins and outs of weaving with some serious how-to’s, Click Here
Education and More: Preserving Traditional Culture, the Backstrap Loom. 10 February 2016. http://www.educationandmore.org/blogs/news/54856837-preserving-traditional-weaving-the-backstrap-loom
Waddington, Laverne. Weavazine: Backstrap Weaving. https://backstrapweaving.wordpress.com/backstrap-basics-an-article-from-weavezine-by-laverne-waddington/
Ancient Origins: Weaving the World of Ancient Mayan Women. 15 August 2014. http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-americas/weaving-world-ancient-mayan-women-001976?page=0%2C1